Why Apology Is So Difficult for Some People
How to give an effective and meaningful apology.
Posted June 13, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
In my previous post, "Why We Need to Apologize," I discussed why apology is so important. But apologizing to those we have hurt or harmed isn’t always an easy task. There can be various obstacles in our way of doing what is right.
1. A matter of pride. To apologize is to set aside our pride long enough to admit our imperfections. For some people, this feels far too vulnerable, too dangerous. It means they have to admit they are flawed and fallible, something they refuse to do. And apologizing also overrides our tendency to make excuses or blame others. This acceptance of responsibility for our own actions is so out of character for some that it is nearly impossible.
2. A sign of weakness. To many, particularly men, apologizing reflects weakness. These people have a tendency to need to be right and to always be seen as strong and powerful. But the truth is, apologizing for the harm you caused and taking responsibility for your mistakes can actually be seen as a sign of strength. For example, General Mark Milley recently apologized for appearing in a photo-op with President Trump. “It was a mistake,” he admitted, “I should not have been there.” For most people, hearing a top General apologize didn’t diminish him in their eyes but elevated him. The truth is, it takes strength to apologize.
3. Fear of being shamed. Some people have been so severely shamed in their childhood that they can’t tolerate any further shaming. This includes admitting when they are wrong or apologizing for mistakes.
4. The fear of consequences. Many people fear that if they take the risk of apologizing they may be rejected. "What if he never speaks to me again?" and "What if she leaves me?" are two of our most common fears. Others fear that by apologizing they risk being exposed to others or of having their reputations ruined. "What if he tells everyone what I did?" is the common fear of those who fear this consequence. Some people fear that by admitting fault they will lose the respect of others. "What if she thinks I'm incompetent?" Still, others fear retaliation, as in, "What if he yells at me?" or "What if she tries to get revenge?" Finally, the fear of exposure or even arrest may prevent us from doing what we know we need to do. Even those who would like to apologize for wrongdoing hold back out of fear of being sued or arrested, or due to the advice of legal counsel.
5. A lack of awareness. Many people don't apologize because they are oblivious to the effect their actions have on others. They don't apologize because they are simply unaware that they have anything to apologize for. They may be so focused on what others have done to harm them that they can't see how they have harmed others, or they just may be so self-focused that they are unable to see the effect their behavior has on others.
Each person suffers in one way or another. And each of us is trying to end that suffering in any way we can. Sometimes, in a last-ditch effort to end our suffering, we choose to close off our minds or harden our hearts. When we do this, we accomplish our goal of not being able to feel our pain but we also stop being able to feel the pain of others. When this happens we act in callous, selfish, even cruel ways without even knowing it. This may give the impression that we don't care when, in fact, we are just blind to the effects of our actions.
6. The inability to empathize. By far, the most significant reason why so many of us have difficulty apologizing is that we lack empathy for others, that quality that enables us to put ourselves in the place of the other person. In order to truly apologize, we need to be able to imagine how our behavior or attitude has affected the other person. Unfortunately, many people are unable to do this. Some have to be reminded how to have empathy, others have to be taught.
Apology has the power to humble the most arrogant of people. When we are able to develop the courage to admit when we are wrong and to work past our fears and resistance to apologizing, we develop a deep sense of respect for ourselves. This self-respect can, in turn, affect our self-esteem, our self-confidence, and our overall outlook on life.
When I apologize to you, I show you that I respect you and care about your feelings. I let you know that I did not intend to hurt you and that it is my intention to treat you fairly in the future. By accepting my apology, you not only show me (and yourself) that you have a generous spirit but that you are giving me and our relationship another chance. In addition, you are reminded of your own mistakes and this, in turn, can encourage you to treat me and others with more respect and consideration.
What Is a Meaningful Apology?
Many people need to be taught how to apologize in a way that will be heard and accepted. In my book, The Power of Apology, I explained that an effective, meaningful apology is one that communicates what I call the three "R"s—regret, responsibility, and remedy.
1. A statement of regret for having caused the inconvenience, hurt, or damage.
To feel true regret, we need to have empathy for the person we have harmed. This entails imagining how the other person feels and an awareness of the inconvenience, hurt, or damage that you caused the other person. Having empathy for the person you hurt or angered is actually the most important part of your apology. When you truly have empathy, the other person will feel it. Your apology will wash over him or her like a healing balm. On the other hand, if you don't have empathy, your apology will sound and feel empty.
2. An acceptance of responsibility for your actions.
This means not blaming anyone else for what you did and not making excuses for your actions but instead accepting full responsibility.
3. A statement of your willingness to take some action to remedy the situation—either by promising to not repeat your action, a promise to work toward not making the same mistake again, a statement as to how you are going to remedy the situation (go to therapy) or by making restitution for the damages you caused. Just saying you are sorry is insulting unless you offer reassurances that you will not do it again.
Apology is a powerful interaction that has an almost magical ability to provide healing for both the offended and the offender. Let’s not squander our opportunities to heal, grow, and change our lives and the lives of others for the better by refusing to admit our wrongs or by giving half-hearted, bumbled, or insulting apologies.
Engel, Beverly. (2002)The Power of Apology: Healing Steps to Transform All Your Relationships. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.